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Tales of a Hay Hauler: Steel tennis shoes and the party crouch

Brad Nelson Published on 30 June 2008

Any stockman will tell you that hay trucks don’t really run well until there is snow on the ground. Or so it seemed by the timing of the orders for hay.

The dairymen and the hobby-horse guys were different. They fed hay the year ‘round and ordered consistently throughout the year. I guess the cattle ranchers kept hoping for an open winter, until there was snow two-feet deep all over the winter range.

But I’ll admit that my perspective is from running a hay truck over, around, and through snowdrifts.

Leo and I had just unloaded our last loads for the week in the ranch country south of Mountain City, Nevada. The wind had kept us wary of how we held our heads, lest we go running after our hats for most of the week.

The sky had been spitting snow at us and threatening a major snowfall. It was just to the point of dark when we left Mountain City and headed north.

The storm, which we were oblivious to at the time, was coming from the north. It was a dry snow, that, at first, we could blow off of the road as we drove.

Then the exact location of the road became difficult to determine. I took the lead, since I had a good pair of clear fog lamps that found the ditches beside the road better than just standard headlights. Powerful, but not strong enough to blow the snow off the road. Leo was following about a quarter-mile behind.

This distance gave my powder trail time to settle so Leo could at least see my tracks. Finally he asked why I had stopped in the middle of the road. I couldn’t go forward any more.

The only thing worse than having to “hang iron,” is not putting on the tire chains soon enough. We had bumbled onto a flat where the road was even to, or just below, the lay of the land.

Even in the gale that was blowing, the road was about a foot below the top of the snow. By the time we were chained up, we had about three layers of snow powder between the layers of our clothes. We proceeded, concerned that we had not seen any oncoming traffic since we left Mountain City.

The thick powder muffled the “jingle bell” clanging of the chains. Then, as the snow deepened, forward motion again came to a stop. I backed up a few feet and tried again. And again.

And then had to have Leo pull me back with a chain. After two or three sets of this action, we were once again moving steadily forward.

During the last of the charge-forward-and-be-pulled-back dances, one of our helpers walked forward. He discovered that just around the bend, the road was practically snow-free. The bad news was a half-inch of nice, slick ice on the road.

As we were gathering up the pull-back chain, we noticed headlights coming from behind us. With the glare-ice downhill curves ahead of us, we hoped for a sand truck.

It wasn’t. With the trouble we whad on that last two miles of snowdrifts, we waited to make sure whomever it was made it through. It was a Toyota pick-up with four-wheel drive and tires about three feet wide.

The little rascal was just about driving on top of the powdered snow. The driver, in his shirtsleeves, listening to his stereo, was completely oblivious to our concerns for his ability to make it through. We hoped he wouldn’t have to be pulled out of a ditch farther on. But we never saw him again.

We stopped when we ran out of the snow to see if the tire chains were still in place. Since we had to hang onto the truck to keep from falling down, we left them on until we were sure the road under us was clear of ice. As we approached the Bruneau, Idaho area, we found out why there had been no oncoming traffic.

On the south side of the last turn-off the highway was barricaded with a “Road Closed” sign. Later we found out the road had been closed for two days. The people on the Nevada side just never bothered to put up signs.

As we pulled into the ranch we had been hauling south from, we held a short C.B. radio conference and decided that 2:30 in the morning was about a half hour past our bedtime.

We stood on the downwind side of the trucks and peeled off coveralls, coats, and sweaters. And shook the snow out of the same. There was almost enough snow there to build a nice snowman. We went to bed instead.

The snowstorm circled around and found us as we slept. The plan had been to load in the Mountain Home area and then go home. Since the novelty of trucking through snowdrifts had worn off, we left the trailers in Bruneau.

The twelve-ton load of hay on each truck would be enough to go home with. At the stack yard, we had one more “charge-and- be-pulled-out-backward” dance before loading.

Among the things I’ve learned about driving in the snow are the following: If you have to throw on tire chains, put on enough. Leo finally convinced me that it takes less time to put on two sets of three-rail chains than to be stuck. For off-road use, “single” chains are good until a wheel slips a quarter of a turn.

With this much movement, the chain will have moved the material out from under its tire, and the inside dual will be sitting on packed ice. You are as stuck as if you had no chains on at all.

Temperature and sunshine have a dramatic effect on snow and ice traction. At fifteen below, the warmer tires and the cold ice or packed snow will be trying to freeze together.

Within reason, you can drive just about anywhere “barefoot.” The same surface, at thirty-three degrees, and add a little sunshine, will have a layer of water on top of the ice, and YEE HAH! Be aware that if your on-board thermometer says that the outside temperature is 27 degrees, and the sun is out, that road surface could be 33 degrees.

If you have no outside temperature reading device, look at the tread surface of the other vehicles. If the tires are wet, and the road is snow- or ice-covered, your tires are wet also. If the tires are white, it is a good sign that it is cold enough to afford better traction.

On a truck or on a car, a siped tire will give traction on ice almost as good as a studded tire. Also, none of your manhood is lost if you pull off of the road until conditions improve. Oftentimes, prudence is the better part of valor.

I was once asked to explain how I could have driven truck for all those years without an upset or collision. The best answer I could come up with was to be driving about half a mile ahead of where you are. If, up ahead, you see brake lights come on, it’s time to snap out of la-la land and make ready to apply the binders.

Know what your abilities are, and how far it takes your vehicle to stop. In freezing rain. Then leave that much space ahead of you. Remember, it’s much better to be the first on the scene of a really bad wreck than to be the last one involved.

The Sunday after we spent six hours in the snow to do an hour’s worth of driving I was a bad guy. The fellows I went to church with were planning a snow party. I declined as graciously as I could.

I still had cold fingers and toes, and felt as though I could still find enough snow in my underwear to defend myself in a snowball fight. I’ll have to admit my gracious decline lacked grace.  FG